N.J. fort awaits transformation for 21st century

Sandy Hook outpost sinking into decay after deactivation in 1974

March 17, 2002|By Andrew Jacobs | Andrew Jacobs,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FORT HANCOCK, N.J. - Like a column of tired old soldiers eager to brag of faded glories, the brick centurions that housed generations of military men here are proud, imposing, but withered by time, their sagging rooflines and rotting porches hinting of a more regal past.

Built at the mouth of New York Harbor as a bulwark against maritime invaders, Fort Hancock was the premier fortification for the nation's premier city and port. The British found this sandy spit invaluable when they seized Manhattan in 1776. So did the Eisenhower-era tacticians who erected Nike missiles in the dunes in the 1950s, a potential foil to Soviet warplanes.

But since 1974, when the Pentagon deactivated this Army base at the tip of Sandy Hook and handed it over to the National Park Service, most of Fort Hancock's Colonial-style barracks, stables and gun batteries have been mothballed, awaiting the bold ideas and federal largess that would bring them back to life.

Now, faced with the rapid decay of more than 280 structures, the National Park Service has chosen a private developer to transform Fort Hancock into a resort, office center and cultural hub, all set amid the 19th-century buildings that housed thousands of soldiers between the Spanish-American and Vietnam Wars.

No suburban office park, the 140-acre sand-and-lawn campus would be swept with delicious sea breezes in the summer and icy gusts in the winter. On clear days, it would have faraway views of the Lower Manhattan skyline in New York. Water, of course, would be visible at every turn, and frequent ferries would connect Fort Hancock to the city, 45 minutes away.

No new structures

The plan by Sandy Hook Partners of Middletown, was chosen from among 22 proposals, some of which envisioned golf courses, skeet-shooting platforms, housing for the elderly and conference centers. Mindful of potential critics, park officials point out that the winning project would neither remove existing structures nor add new ones, except for a maintenance garage and a building modeled on a handsome hospital that burned two decades ago.

"This place is really a hidden jewel," said Richard E. Wells, Fort Hancock's deputy superintendent. "But if we don't act quickly, these buildings will continue to deteriorate and they could be lost forever."

With $5 billion in Park Service projects languishing across the country, Wells said, there was little hope that Congress would provide the $60 million to $90 million needed to restore Fort Hancock. "It's not like the American people have that kind of money in their back pocket," he said. "We can't do this alone."

So far, there has been little criticism of the proposed plan, which faces a modest approval process. Some environmentalists have expressed concern that the additional 800 cars and 1,500 people who will be drawn to the new Fort Hancock could harm a fragile ecosystem. Others are uncomfortable with the privatization of national park land.

"Sandy Hook is basically an unreinforced sandbar and the last piece of undeveloped coastline within 55 miles of New York," said Brian Unger, regional director of the Surfers' Environmental Alliance. "More cars, more parking lots and more people can't be good for it."

Most, however, say the park service has been careful to balance history, economics and the environment. "Other than just abandoning or bulldozing the place, we see this is a good fit," said Ray Cosgrove, president of the Sandy Hook Foundation, which works to preserve the peninsula's delicate flora as well as Fort Hancock's decaying structures. "My feeling is that the National Park Service loves this place as much as we do," Cosgrove said.

Ground could be broken as early as this fall.

Mostly dates to 1898

Although the U.S. military began fortifications during the War of 1812, much of what remains was built in 1898, all of it dressed in a sober Colonial revival uniform. Most striking is the orderly procession of mustard-colored houses that stand along Sandy Hook Bay. Three of the 18 houses will be turned into boutique inns and others will find a new life as offices. A nearby mule barn will become a restaurant.

Behind Officers Row and scattered around the parade grounds are an assortment of matching structures: mess halls, a chapel, a bowling alley, a post office and barracks for nearly 1,000 men. One of the most impressive structures, the Officers Club, is a rambling ruin overlooking the Atlantic, its floors buckled by water damage, the tin ceilings rusted by years of salt spray. Built in 1878, the building will become a bed and breakfast.

"I'm stunned by the condition but amazed by the beauty," said Jim Wassel, the head of Sandy Hook Partners. As he descended the double staircase, mounds of paint flakes crunched underfoot. Wassel, a veteran developer, had a hand in historical restorations like those of Faneuil Hall in Boston and South Street Seaport in New York.

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